So You Think You’ve Got a Feature Request?
Product managers are always weighing new ideas to put on the roadmap. We’re not the sole sources of innovation, just the stewards. We welcome suggestions from fellow employees. But you should know what you’re getting into.
If you’ve ever suggested an idea to a product manager, chances are slim that you heard a response like, “Great idea! I’m going to put some stories in the backlog for that right now!” (If you did, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but those stories never got written.)
It’s not because the idea is bad, or because PMs like to think we’re the only ones who are allowed to come up with features. It’s because we hear this shit all the time, and we’ve probably already spent some time considering your idea.
So for all the non-product people that have ideas for features, I’m going to reveal the secret to getting your ideas on the roadmap. This is closely guarded information and they could revoke my membership from the Product Manager’s Alliance, but I’m going to share it anyway.
Let’s start with the most obvious one: don’t try and pitch a PM on a feature until you’re sure we’re listening to you. Catching one of us in a hallway or with one earphone in is not a good way to get our full attention. Schedule some time on our calendar or make use of pre-existing opportunities, like product office hours.
It takes more than 30 seconds to get something on the roadmap. When you try to offload your idea in passing, you’re inadvertently insulting the PM’s process for prioritizing and understanding problems. It’s kinda the hardest part of the job, so when you squeeze it into the dead space between back-to-back meetings, it can seem disrespectful. Plus, it takes more than just saying, “I think we should build a feature that does This Job.”
Your idea may seem obvious to you, but you need to help your product manager see that. Here’s a simple exercise: ask yourself, “If the idea is such an obvious winner, how come we haven’t done it yet?”
Give your PM the necessary context to see the merit of your idea. Product managers love two things: (1) data, and (2) more data. It doesn’t all have to be quantitative. It can be a story of a recent customer interaction, or a sale that fell through. (Be prepared though: we’re going to ask things like, “How many other customers have brought this up?” and “About what percentage of your deals would this affect?”) You don’t need to put together slides or a book report, just help us see the problem the way you do.
Yes, I’m asking you to do a little bit of extra work, but it gives your idea an actual chance of being heard.
Do you want to be part of the signal or the noise?
It’s okay to propose a solution as well—it shows that you’ve put some thought into it. Just know that PMs think about problems and solutions separately. We might agree on the priority of the problem, but not the nature of the solution. This is where it’s up to the product manager to give you some context about what is easy or hard to build, what focal areas or metrics are important for the quarter, and what dependencies or blockers exist. Your idea may be a good one, but it may be a quarter too early.
Defend & Debate
Even if you get the timing right and give all the proper context to convince your product manager, you should still expect some debate. Why? Because product managers love to talk things through, and because your idea has to coexist with every other idea on or off the roadmap. Even if it’s a clear winner, there’s still the question of where it fits. What comes off the roadmap? What gets bumped down?
Your product manager may bring up the roadmap and ask you to point out the items you’d be willing to sacrifice in order to get your idea on there. Your idea isn’t the only good one, and we can only act on so many at once. Them’s the breaks.
We’re not trying to be difficult, and we’re not trying to make it personal. It’s about the idea, and it’s about the process. We know that people might not have a full understanding of what we do or how difficult it is. There’s no shortage of good ideas, and the roadmap serves many masters. We have ideas we’d like to see get build too, and often have to sideline them in favor of the More Prudent Thing. In product, you’re always letting somebody down.